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Art in Spain and Portugal

Art in Spain and Portugal

During the Renaissance, Spanish and Portuguese art was influenced by cultural movements in other parts of Europe, particularly those in Italy. However, the art of the Iberian Peninsula* already possessed a distinctive character that was shaped by the region's history, social conditions, and landscape. In addition, different areas of the peninsula had developed their own unique styles based on local culture and traditions.


Moorish Legacy. The Moors, Muslims who conquered large parts of Spain in the 700s and held it for most of the Middle Ages, had a major impact on Spanish and Portuguese culture. For nearly 700 years, the Moorish style, which combined plain, flat surfaces with elaborate decorations, dominated Iberian art and architecture. This style, known as mudejar for the Muslim artisans* who remained in Spain after its reconquest by Christians, appeared in many major buildings. The most famous example is the Alhambra palace, built around 1358 in Granada in southern Spain. A masterpiece of mudejar design, the Alhambra is lavishly decorated with delicate carving and colorful mosaics*.


Characteristics of Iberian Art. After the expulsion of the Moors at the end of the 1400s, Spanish and Portuguese artists looked increasingly to the rest of Europe for inspiration. Architects created a new style that combined Gothic* and mudejar elements. Their designs made use of the bright Iberian sunlight, which highlighted the intricate carvings on outer walls and in courtyards.

Sculpture and architecture were closely connected in mudejar buildings. Finely sculpted decorations often covered columns, window frames, and other architectural elements. Mudejar work influenced Spanish artists, who developed a style known as plateresco (from plata, meaning silver) because it resembled the work of silversmiths. Plateresco walls and sculptures featured intricately carved designs.

Plateresco style gave rise to the most distinctive element of Iberian churches—the retable, an elaborately decorated high altar. Most retables were huge constructions made up of indentations filled with paintings and statues. In the 1480s and 1490s, the Spanish sculptor Gil de Siloé created enormous retables crowded with carved images of religious figures.

During the 1400s artistic developments in northern Europe had an influence on Iberian painters. Artists in Spain and Portugal began to use oil paints, which were popular in the north. They also tended to dwell on the harsh and cruel aspects of daily life and of biblical scenes, as northern painters did. One reason for this emphasis in Iberian paintings may have been the violent atmosphere of the late 1400s and early 1500s that was created by the expulsion of Jews and Muslims.

Another source of inspiration for Iberian art was the rise of overseas exploration. Expeditions to Africa, India, East Asia, and the Americas brought the Spanish and Portuguese into contact with a wide variety of peoples. The artwork from these exotic lands influenced Iberian artists. At the same time, the colonial empires of Spain and Portugal developed distinctive cultures that blended European and local traditions.

Development of Renaissance Style. Spain's involvement with Italian Renaissance culture began around 1442, when King Alfonso of Aragon conquered the kingdom of Naples and moved his court from Spain to Italy. Alfonso commissioned work from a variety of painters, architects, sculptors, and illustrators in Naples. The work of these artists reflected the city's strong classical* tradition as well as its close links with Florence, one of the centers of Italian Renaissance art.

The first buildings in the Renaissance style appeared on the Iberian Peninsula in the late 1400s. One notable example is the facade* of the University of Salamanca. Constructed in 1494, it combines delicate Gothic spires and pointed arches with classical columns and rounded arches.

In Portugal a style known as Manuelino developed during the rule of King Manuel I in the late 1400s and early 1500s. It too combined Gothic features with structural elements and a sense of proportion typical of the Renaissance. Diogo Boytac, one of the king's principal architects, built convents, monasteries, and other major religious buildings in the Manuelino style. Portuguese Renaissance architecture is also noted for using azulejos, colored tiles, on facades, floors, and fountains. The church of São Roque in the city of Coimbra contains spectacular examples of azulejo decoration.

Spanish and Portuguese artists became familiar with Italian art in the early to mid-1500s, and their style reflected the influence of the Italian Renaissance. This was due in part to the emergence of internationally known Italian artists such as Titian and Raphael. The publication of books on the arts, including the works of Leon Battista Alberti, also helped spread Renaissance art theory. In addition, many Portuguese and Spanish artists studied in Italy and then returned to Iberia to put their training into practice. Spanish painter Pedro Berruguete, who worked in Italy for the duke of Urbino from about 1475 to 1482, was one of these. Berruguete adopted many Italian and northern European painting techniques, which he used throughout his career in Spain.

Various Iberian monarchs took an active role in encouraging the flowering of Renaissance art. Charles V of Spain (ruled 1516–1555) asked the Italian-trained architect Pedro Machuca to design a building attached to the Alhambra in Granada. Intended as a royal residence, the structure combined elements of ancient Roman and Renaissance Italian style.

Charles's son, Philip II (ruled 1556–1598), was also an enthusiastic patron* and collector of Renaissance art. Philip bought Italian paintings for his palaces and Renaissance sketchbooks and art texts for his library. He ordered the construction of the vast Escorial palace and monastery complex north of Madrid. Designed by Spanish architect Juan de Herrera, the Escorial was an imposing structure that highlighted the power of both the king and the Roman Catholic Church in Spain. It was built in golden limestone in a classical style that emphasized repeated patterns and geometric forms. Philip invited Italian artists to create vivid, lively paintings like those popular in Florence and Rome to decorate the interior.

Philip II supported the work of many Spanish artists and architects. However, he did not like the paintings of the man known as El Greco (the Greek). After studying in Rome, El Greco moved to the Spanish city of Toledo. He received a commission to create a work for the church at the Escorial and painted The Martyrdom of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion. Philip rejected the picture for the church, so it was placed out of the way in the monastery. Nevertheless, El Greco found numerous other wealthy patrons in Spain and created many paintings in an intense emotional style.

(See alsoArchitecture; Art; Moriscos; Portugal; Spain. )

* Iberian Peninsula

part of Western Europe occupied by present-day Spain and Portugal

* artisan

skilled worker or craftsperson

* mosaic

picture made up of many small colored stones or tiles

* Gothic

style of architecture characterized by pointed arches and high, thin walls supported by flying buttresses; also, artistic style marked by bright colors, elongated proportions, and intricate detail

see color plate 14, vol. 1

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* facade

front of a building; outward appearance

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

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